Friday, May 28, 2010


Opening remarks by Associate Professor Anthony Burke at the ANU School of Art Gallery, 7 May 2010.

It is an honour to be asked to open this exhibition. I recall as a young human rights activist in Sydney seeing some of Michael’s posters – especially the very striking one he did for Amnesty International’s 25th anniversary – and so its interesting to see the longer survey of his work, especially how its book-ended by the early anti-militarist concrete poems and the recent work on Iraq. As someone who has travelled a strange route, from being a human rights activist to teaching at a military academy - where I have a strange role as a kind of embedded critical theorist – seeing Michael’s new work on Iraq and the war on terror is fascinating.

I thought of it this week when I bought a copy of the March Foreign Policy magazine, which is a kind of American version of TIME for international policy wonks. To illustrate a major section on the future of war, its cover it had an iPhone in camouflage print, with a series of icons onscreen named ‘surge’, ‘shock and awe’, ‘dronewar’, ‘hearts and minds’, ‘blackops’, ‘sitroom’ and more. Beneath it ran the title, “Killer Apps”.

I could see how the designer was striving for the irony and humour of pop or conceptual art, but the result was flippant and shallow. The effect was not helped by some of the content, which was narrowly concerned with the effectiveness of US power and included a piece by the strategist Edward Luttwak, who argued that while the US military’s new counterinsurgency focus on the protection of populations, good governance, minimum use of force, etc. was all very nice, we need to rediscover the virtues of strategic bombing. While Michael’s work is part of a global movement of dissent that has had an appreciable impact on the US military – not the least because some influential officers had the same concerns we did - Luttwak’s intervention suggests that even if the US Army and Marine Corps have moved on from ‘Shock and Awe’ in admirable ways, there are still enough dangerous and influential thinkers about to make this kind of artwork a very important form of public critique and memory.

Like the “Killer Apps” cover, Michael’s work is clearly working the space between advertising aesthetics and conceptual art, but in a far more profound and critical way. There is a depth there that provokes thought and moral reflection, that can’t be reduced to a simple set of meanings.

Depth is evoked in the way that the work is constructed – using layers in Photoshop and Illustrator – and in the way the pieces layer widely separated historical experiences into a common reality, whether its medieval poems evoking contemporary Arab revolt and anger, the resurgence of medieval torture techniques in the Bush administrations practices of rendition and water boarding, and the ghostly reappearance of a medieval image of the all powerful sovereign who can make war and dispose of the lives of his subjects at whim. This was the darker edge to Bush’s ‘forward strategy of freedom’ in the Middle-East, which was never able to shake off the sense that it was a kind of medieval crusade in another form.

In other ways the work plays with surface and depth, combining the rich historical associations of Arabic script with game icons, weapons schematics and flags. Yet even here the icons are subtly subverted – the flags indicate distress – and while the cartoonish quality of the work evokes the cartoonish contrasts of too much international policy – where Bush and Saddam are latter day versions of the Roadrunner and the Wile E. Coyote – the work shows us the layers of history, suffering, and violence that would quickly disturb the policymakers’ grand plans and produce such tragedy.

The new work also think of the claims of Jean Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson in the 1980s that contemporary culture would become all surface and simulacrum, and cultural productions would be little more than a depthless form of pastiche. In its play of surface and depth, Michael’s work reflects these claims but stands a gentle and serious form of rebuke to both the Bush neocons and the prophets of postmodernism.

The Bush Neocons did in part play this out the simulacral future, with their confidence that they could conduct ‘perception management’ and ‘create a new reality’; however, as Michael’s great “Shock and Awe” piece suggests, they would quickly find that in today’s post-modern conflicts, the real lives and real suffering of real people will always complicate and resist our grand and violent abstractions. Consider the first lines of text on one of remarkable new Iraq pieces: ‘Regime change. Meeting friends.’

We can all congratulate Michael on a great career achievement and some brilliant new works. I hope they meet with the attention and success they deserve.

Anthony Burke is Associate Professor of International Politics in the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy. He is the author of Fear of Security: Australia’s Invasion Anxiety (Cambridge UP, 2008) and Beyond Security, Ethics and Violence: War Against the Other (Routledge, 2007), and is currently writing a book entitled Postmodern Conflict: Global Security and Asymmetric War.

Antara, 2009-10
Digital print, Canson Photographique Archival

310 gsm, 111cm x 200 cm
Edition of 30

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


It is an honour to be presenting two mature mid career artists tonight and delighted in the knowledge that both these bodies of work sit comfortably in the two rooms and will sustain a viewer’s attention for the next month in the gallery.

CHRIS CAPPER, in the Project Room, presents 11 new works that he started working on in 2007.

I recently became aware of a group called Slow Art where, (inspired by the slow food movement), guests are invited to sit in front of one masterpiece in a museum and whilst having a meal look and discuss only that one painting for a number of hours.

The slow peeling back of references, techniques, possibilities is something worth doing with any of Chris’ work.

When you stop and really look at Chris Capper paintings it becomes obvious they are not pictures depicting bunches of flowers, nor are they really about the refined balancing of figurative and abstract elements. They are all of those things and more.

So how do you then define the ‘more’?

I really enjoy my conversations with Chris and this afternoon we were both recalling how much we enjoyed the Simon Schama’s TV documentary on Mark Rothko last Sunday.

Schama was talking about one of the words Rothko most often used about his art; he was always concerned whether it was ‘poignant’, the inevitable passing of things.

All good artists spend a lifetime determined to trap their fugitive visions.

I wish I had Schama’s beautiful turn of phrase, but I will quote from him about Rothko as it will allow us to understand some of the reasoning behind Chris Capper’s art:

“It is impossible not to be touched by that poignancy: of our comings and goings, entrances and exits, womb, tomb and everything in between.”

Now we come to the main exhibition tonight, TONY TWIGG.

I realised only tonight that Tony exhibited at the Gary Anderson Gallery in 1985, so we are somewhat honoured to be passed on the baton of showing Tony’s art as Anderson is fondly remembered by many gathered here tonight as a seminal and influential aesthete.

This is Tony’s first exhibition in Sydney since 2004.

During that time he has embarked on a journey into Asia, where he has now become better known and respected in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Manila than here in his home town, Sydney.

It is not that surprising as Tony has found an audience which culturally accepts abstraction for what it is….it just is. Here with the inheritance of a western aesthetic we still searching for a narrative or conceptual springboard to deconstruct or construct the ‘real’ meaning.

When you view Tony’s work tonight, think of that journey.

Whilst walking on a journey you become aware of your breathing.

Air going into your body, air going out.

This is something intrinsic when viewing the series of work known as discs and accordions.

Some of the ‘shards’ and vertical sharp contract shoulder to shoulder into a tight visual space, breathing in.

Then others, offering the same design, breathe out, with the expanse of negative space allowing them to stretch out along the wall.

Breathe in and out.

When viewing Tony Twigg’s work you sense design within interiors, the architecture of built objects shaping environments and living spaces.

Breathe in and each work has a sense of collage, a collection of juxtaposed objects, lines, shapes.

Breathe out and each work has a feel of being a painting. The surfaces are treat with subtle variable tones soaking into the wooden plane.

Breathe in and each work becomes a drawing, the line of nature drifting and then pushing.

Breathe out and each work contains a history of the artist looking and observing for many, many years.

Look at the main sculpture Five Sticks, and your senses immediately trigger into non specific indigenous references, Tiwi pukamani poles, Javanese carvings and then our modern western tradition of Brancusi and Arp.

Twigg has spent a lifetime of inquiry and observation. This is evoked in the book we launch tonight, ‘Encountering the Object’ edited by Gina Fairley. Flicking through it alongside the substantial essays are images of Tony’s work sitting next to urban or rural photographs that echo the source and intent of the work.

Tonight we also congratulate and celebrate the contribution Gina Fairly, has made to Tony’s art practice. Since being in relationship with Gina there has been a shift in Twigg’s work, a calmness and repose echo in the lines and shapes.

When talking about Twigg’s journey we must also articulate his almost forensic research into the life and time of the artist
Ian Fairweather in Asia.

From finding apartments he once stayed in; to landing on the beach where Fairweather’s raft was washed up, Twigg continues to make a valuable contribution to our knowledge of this great artist.

In return, Fairweather’s journey has allowed Tony to embark on his own quest as an Australian artist engaging in Asia.

As the exhibition title, Ricochet, suggests, you can see and feel this artist’s journey…..Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Singapore and now for the first time in many years, Sydney.

Tony Twigg
5 Sticks in any order (standing), 2004/10
Enamel on timber construction in 5 parts
265cm x 140cm x 130cm